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Excerpt from A Language Older Than Words

Cassini (p. 229)

From chapter "Violence Revisited"

Yet another example. On October 13, 1997, Columbus Day plus one, NASA launched the Cassini Space Probe. The ostensible purpose was to explore Saturn. We could discuss the arrogance, stupidity, and inhumanity of spending $3.4 billion to explore another planet while $285 million would save the lives of 2.5 million children annually on the planet we already occupy. But the death urge is made even more clear by another factor. Because Cassini’s propulsion source didn’t have the power to send it straight to Saturn, NASA sent it first to Venus, and then, after two swings around that planet, the probe returned home, approaching within 312 miles of Earth’s surface. It used the acceleration caused by our gravity to slingshot the probe out to Saturn. Here’s the danger: in order to power its instruments, the probe contains 72.3 pounds of plutonium, mainly plutonium-238, which is about two hundred times more deadly than plutonium-239. Seventy-two and three-tenths pounds of plutonium is almost thirty-three thousand grams, or almost thirty-three million milligrams, or almost thirty-three billion micrograms, or almost thirty-three trillion nanograms.

There are two ways the plutonium could have been delivered to human victims. The first is that the Titan IV rocket carrying the probe could have exploded on launch. NASA estimated the danger of this at one in four hundred and fifty-six, which is bad enough, considering the consequences, but the truth is that a Titan IV rocket has already exploded. Nongovernmental estimates of failure were “between one in ten and one in twenty.”

The other way the plutonium could have killed people would have been if on the flyby the probe suffered what NASA scientists dryly called “an inadvertent reentry.” If NASA calculations would have been imprecise (a mission to Mars crashed because scientists failed to convert English to metric measurements in their calculations), or if the probe had malfunctioned, it could have fallen into Earth’s atmosphere and burned up. As the scientists put it: “If an accident or failure resulted in loss of control of the spacecraft prior to Earth swingby, the spacecraft could conceivably be placed on a Earth-impacting trajectory.” If the craft were to “be placed on a Earth-impacting trajectory,” the scientists said that “the potential health effects [of plutonium poisoning] could occur in two distinct populations, the population within and near the reentry footprint and most of the world population within broad north to south latitude bands.” In other words, the plutonium would have poisoned those near the crash, and everyone else. The scientists stated that “approximately 5 billion of the estimated 7 to 8 billion world population at the time of the swingbys could receive 99 percent or more of the radioactive exposure.” These quotes are from NASA’s Final Environmental Impact Statement for the Cassini Probe, one of the documents used to justify the launch.